Religion, the non-believer and worthwhile relationships.
August 27, 2008 8:38 AM   Subscribe

Myself: atheist. SO: Lutheran. Not too long ago she sent me an email to say that at some point in the future she would like to talk about the religious card and its possible effect on our relationship. Any thoughts on how to approach this? Hints have been dropped here and there at her wanting to finally discuss this.

Just some quick background. While I am quite content with my atheism, I realize that religion is very important to people. I have no urge to discount people's religious beliefs, I just have no desire/need for it to be part of my life. I find the whole topic fascinating, and at one point in my life I had some serious debate about pursuing more formal education in religion studies when I was in university.

She comes from an averagely religious upbringing. She doesn't really attend church regularly, isn't preachy on any religious subject and until now there hasn't been any proselytizing on her part, and I don't really view this as an outward attempt she just has some extremely-valid-to-her concerns on loved ones and the afterlife.

There aren't any ultimatums or anything on the subject (that I'm aware of), I'd just rather not have this turn into some big ugly mess. This is one of the few relationships in my life where I'd like to maintain it for a long time to come, and I'd rather this not be a dealbreaker, but I am thinking that depends on my handling of it all.

Anyone have any experience dealing with this topic?

More info: I just turned 30, college dropout, creative professional, love video games, a DJing music snob, love reading everything from Lovecraft to Satre, to Bukowski to layman quantum physics books. She loves dance, 4th year of university, loves reading fashion magazines and listening to top 40 pop music. We have been living together for a while now, and more or less been dating for about a year. Admittedly the whole thing began as a series of drunken hook-ups and along the way we discovered a pretty serious compatibility.

We have a world of differences between us and it works.
posted by roooooot to Religion & Philosophy (20 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Be prepared for the possibility that the pressure to discuss religion is external to her -- for example, from parents or college religious groups.
posted by fake at 8:47 AM on August 27, 2008

It depends what her concerns are. If she just wants religion and spirituality to be part of your life together, you could look into Unitarian Universalism. You can be a UU and an athiest.

This won't work if she's particularly conservative in her religious views. If her main concern is that you are going to hell if you don't go to her particular church, well, there's not much you can do about that. It might be an insurmountable problem.
posted by diogenes at 8:51 AM on August 27, 2008

Best answer: Sounds like a very similar situation between my wife and I. Here's the cool thing about being in your position: if she is even somewhat rational you just have to respect her beliefs. Where it gets tricky, and I'm sure this is where she is going with this, is how are you going to raise your future kids? As in, I'm making a logical leap here in thinking that you don't care if your wife takes them to church or not, but what is your answer to the following:

"I don't want to go to church alone." Because that is coming to a conversation near you.

If you can suck it up and spend an hour with her every other Sunday at church, things are likely going to be OK. The great thing about your position is you just have to suffer through an hour a week of some crap you don't believe in... but you don't have to believe in it. You just have to be there. Your mind can be elsewhere, and truthfully you don't even have to give a crap if she respects your non-beliefs at all. Just roll with the program.

There's only one caveat to make this system work--your s/o has to be OK with the notion that if your future kids ask you what you believe, you're not going to lie to them. You can be PC about it, but you're not going to mince words. If you guys can agree on the above, it's smooth sailin'.
posted by fusinski at 8:51 AM on August 27, 2008 [2 favorites]

How far do you intend for this relationship to go, in the traditional sense? Its been my experience that during the girlfriend/boyfriend phase, religious differences tend not to be a problem at all unless someone is militant about converting others, and she doesn't sound like that type. The problems tend to be with more traditional aspects of long term relationships such as marriage (do we hold the wedding in a church?), children (do we teach the kids about Jesus, send them to Sunday school?) and family (what would grandma think - an atheist!).

If the subject isn't along those lines, and is just a "I believe this, and you believe something completely different" talk, then be sure to focus on the things you have in common in terms of shared values. Also understand that this may be prompted by something else, like family or a sudden taking of religion more to heart, so try to focus on yourselves and the compromises you can make for each other.
posted by cimbrog at 9:00 AM on August 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I would research Unitarian Universalism as well. They have a lot to say about interfaith couples. They might even provide pastoral counseling on the subject.

I think the important part here is to listen and stay respectful. It's more about hearing her concerns than making any concrete decisions.

Oh, and say this:

This is one of the few relationships in my life where I'd like to maintain it for a long time to come
posted by sondrialiac at 9:01 AM on August 27, 2008

Best answer: Let her talk her heart out but be honest.

Respect her beliefs and be true to yours. Be very blunt without criticizing her beliefs if you have to. I find that blunt honesty works best. Don't be vague or afraid of hurting her feelings, or say something she could misconstrue. Don't give a false hope that you could be changed or converted. Reassure her that you're OK. That you feel comfortable with your beliefs. If she fears for your soul, that's her deal.
posted by Fairchild at 9:06 AM on August 27, 2008

Offer the UU compromise. The UUers are good people, you don't have to believe in anything, and you get to hang out with them and do some good works.
posted by unixrat at 9:11 AM on August 27, 2008

Yes, if you're thinking about having children with this woman, definitely bring that up and make sure you can live with each other's stance on how to raise the kids. HUGE issue, that one. Also, if you two are marriage-minded, talk about what kind of service you would like.

She doesn't sound that devout (I mean, she's living with you, and pre-marital sex is usually a no-no among most devout Christians), you sound open-minded about religious matters, so there's a good chance you can make things work. But if there are irresolvable differences on these matters, you want to find out now.
posted by orange swan at 9:11 AM on August 27, 2008

Best answer: Been there, done this.

I was in a similar situation, except for my girlfriend (now wife, so there is hope) was/is Catholic. She was raised Catholic, not currently practicing, but was enamored with the idea of the traditions surrounding the church. We put off the discussion for a number of months, and I would usually deflect the topic once it came up. However, when we became more serious in our relationship, the topic again and this time there was no avoiding it. We both had to have the conversation with an open mind. We both agreed to respect each others beliefs and would discuss things whenever they came up. Mind you, looking back, I agree with fake that there was a lot of external pressure coming from her mom versus what she was actually thinking/feeling.

However, once I popped the question and the wedding planning discussion came up, we ran into some trouble. She wanted a church wedding. Her mom really wanted a church wedding. I wanted nothing to do with one. We talked, and talked, and talked for almost a month and never really came to a decision we could both live with. Her mom continued to lay on the guilt, even bringing up how her dead grandmother would have really wanted her to get married in a church. I did spend some time doubting the entire relationship and whether or not it could continue with our different views in faith. I think what finally did it for me was I was discussing the entire situation with a friend one day, and she asked me: "Are you willing to be a martyr for this?" Which made me pause...I was thinking things were not going to work out between us, but putting it that way, I wasn't really sure I was ready to give up the relationship we had over whether or not we were going to have a church ceremony. Eventually I agreed because she said that a church wedding was really important to her.

Enter the horror known as the Catholic Engaged Encounter Weekend. I won't go into details, but I was rather upset by being referred to as a pagan heathen by one of the priests involved.

So, yes, it can be done. You have to talk to each other. You have to be open and accepting of the others beliefs. You also have to give the conversation time, there might be some tension first, but you might find it easier to have another conversation in the future about the same topic and see if the tension continues. But do have the conversation when you are both ready. I initially didn't think it would be that important of a conversation, as my wife was not a practicing Catholic. Turned out a little differently in the end.

And if you do continue the relationship, the whole "what are we going to raise our kids as?" conversation is going to come up too. I don't have a good answer to that one yet, as my wife and I are still having that conversation. We even still have the whole religion conversation from time to time and it's been eight months since we were married.

Be open. Be honest. Be accepting. But she has to do the same.
posted by rand at 9:12 AM on August 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

maybe she wants to marry you. in Church. in that case, see related askmefi questions.
posted by matteo at 9:15 AM on August 27, 2008

(or, you know, maybe she's pregnant and wants to keep the baby and have it eventually baptized )
posted by matteo at 9:15 AM on August 27, 2008

Best answer: We have a world of differences between us and it works.

You've only been together for a year. You have no real clue yet if it works.

You, as a couple, are now entering the phase where your long term potential (i.e. marriage, kids, old folks homes) is coming into question. Like others have said, in the first stages of a relationship, religious differences don't matter much, especially for those who aren't "devout". However, just because a person doesn't practice the outward forms of their faith does not mean they aren't devout. And, unlike earlier commenters, you can be extremely liberal, behave in non-conservative ways, and still be extremely devout. And the fact that your SO is now leaving hints that she wants to discuss religion (rather than just come out and tell you her concerns) leaves me to believe that her faith is a lot more imporant to her than you really know. And now that she's starting to think about your long term potential together (1 year is nothing btw), her faith, church, and religious upbringing are now coming to the forefront of your relationship. And it really does not matter how you "handle her faith" to decide if this is a deal breaker or not - it is up to her to decide if this is a deal breaker or not.

You probably aren't as open to her religious beliefs as you claim. You not only misspell her denomination, you leave out descriptions of her previous religious experience and life. What lutheran denomination is she apart of? Did she grow up in a conversative church? Are her parents/family/friends liberal or traditional? Does she pray? How much of her morality is tied up into the teaching of her church? If you really do want this to work, and you've suspected that religion could be a problem, why don't you know the answers to these questions already?
posted by Stynxno at 9:28 AM on August 27, 2008 [3 favorites]

I'm an agnostic (raised Lutheran) married to a non-practicing Jew who has some religious leanings. Everything that Stynxno has said above is accurate, and I'll add that when you talk to her about this, listen.
posted by davejay at 9:45 AM on August 27, 2008

I've been thinking a bit lately about relationships between religious folks and atheists, and of course I turned to AskMe for insight. Here are a few previous threads that might be useful to you:

Admittedly some of these are about marriage, and you're not married yet. But I think after dating for about a year, a lot of people start considering whether the relationship is headed that direction or not, and whether they should stick around if it's not. The questions discussed in those threads are relevant not just for married people, but also for people who are wondering if they ever will be.
posted by vytae at 10:06 AM on August 27, 2008

Response by poster: @ Stynxno The misspelling aside (I blame my east coast pronunciation of it) I am thankfully aware of the almost all of those points, honestly the specific denomination is something I am unaware of. In all my interest in religion I do have a tendency to gloss over a great bulk of Christianity with the exception of always wanting to learn more about its roots. As for the rest of your reply, thanks. Those were all points I obviously wasn't thinking about.

Thanks to everyone for a little bit more insight. This isn't something any of my friends have ever had to contend with and like vytae I figured AskMe would be a good place to turn.
posted by roooooot at 10:30 AM on August 27, 2008

She doesn't believe in most of the Gods in human history. You just believe in one less than her. Assuming you do respect and accept her choice and beliefs, she has a similar choice - whether to respect and accept your lack of them, or not.

As stynxno says, I suspect religion means more to her than you think, and you may have to decide whether stick to your atheism i.e. not faking it in church is more important than your relationship. Kids, and wedding location, and possibly family prompting will likely come up.

Atheists can live and let live; it's a lot harder for many religions with One True God Who Must Be Worshiped By All Or they Go To Hell to do the same, though it works for many less devout people. I'm engaged to a not-particular-strong catholic while being an atheist, so it can work. Half my family is CoE, while my nephew has been baptized.

You just need to find a medium that works for both of you, to stay together. That will depend on what she wants from you, and how far you're willing to bend.
posted by ArkhanJG at 10:32 AM on August 27, 2008

Agree also with stynxno and ArkhanJG...pretty much.

Being a Lutheran is the same as being a Christian (except you should learn a bit about John Calvin and Predestination..oh and Martin Luther) and unlike Catholisism, its not really accecpted to be with someone who straight out opposes the value of Christ, as you obviously do.
I was also in your situation, just switched, it was my wife who was the atheist, but really an agnostic...this ended up being a really good thing for us and inturn she is a much more prudent follower that I am...sad to say on my part.

I mean, let her be honest and of course you shoot for that too...if her faith convicts her in a proper and Godly manner, there is a good chance your relationship will suffer...or end. But, if you want to do as the above poster stated, rand up there, your going to end up living a life that you will get angry about on many levels (the wedding issue is just the start my man) and while rand also says that you need an open mind but she does too isnt going to gel well with her leanings. She has a faith that does have some rights and wrongs, an "open mind" is in manny respects contrary to MANY religions....

I'm thinking that since you dont believe in anything, you have alot more room to be open minded than her...

Good luck and take care...
posted by TeachTheDead at 11:09 AM on August 27, 2008

Yes, you two may well rub along but it can be an issue when it comes to children. I encountered it myself. In your position, assuming your SO is going to raise the issue, I'd probably inquire: Will I be allowed to present the principles of and evidence for Evolution to our future children?
posted by londongeezer at 11:55 AM on August 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

TeachTheDead is perhaps talking about one variety of Lutheranism he knows of. I've never heard of this difference between Catholics and Lutherans when it comes to "[being] with some who straight out opposes the value of Christ." To be blunt, that's because it's not universally true, and is not some hallmark of Lutheranism. If she is an ELCA Lutheran (the majority of Lutherans in the US are members of this denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) then getting married in a religious wedding (if you are not opposed) is not going to be some big hassle where you will be asked to betray your conscience. Catholicism views marriage as a sacrament, a profoundly Christian act, and Lutheranism does not, reasoning that all societies have forms of marriage. In fact, Luther says in his Estate of Marriage, "Know therefore that marriage is an outward, bodily thing, like any other worldly undertaking. Just as I may eat, drink, sleep, walk, ride with, buy from, speak to, and deal with a heathen, Jew, Turk, or heretic, so I may also marry and continue in wedlock with him. Pay no attention to the precepts of those fools who forbid it. You will find plenty of Christians, and indeed the greater part of them, who are worse in their secret unbelief than any Jew, heathen, Turk, or heretic. A heathen is just as much a man or a woman-God's good creation-as St. Peter, St. Paul, and St. Lucy, not to speak of a slack and spurious Christian"

Admittedly, Luther is a very contradictory figure (he later wrote and published extremely anti-Semitic stuff, most famously On the Jews and their Lies, which could certainly be considered an incitement to violence), so don't take the above to think Lutheranism can be wholly a nice, liberal and tolerant religion. The biggest religious question you will face with this woman is probably going to be the baptism of any children. Lutheranism practises infant baptism and confirmation at around 13. If she feels you have to convert, tell her that that is not required at all by Lutheranism (you can even use the above quotation). In fact, if you follow the link, Luther is arguing that is not required at all by Christianity (Luther didn't set out to build a new organization, he set to reform Western Christianity).

If she just wants a weekly communal event that's sort of like a church service, then I'd recommend Unitarian Universalism all the way. I'm really not putting it down in any way. You can believe whatever you want, people read from all sorts of texts, some of them structure the sermon as a weekly lecture on an interesting religious/philosophical topic, etc. I suppose it's Deist (it wants you to believe in god, however you define it), but you can just believe in the universe or something. They really have no "tests" at all for membership and they're not going to press you on what you believe.

Also, returning to TeachTheDead's comments above, Lutherans might like you to learn Reformation history, but Predestination (you can look it up, I'm not going to explain it), believed in a different form than Calvinism, is not the big thing it is in the (Calvinist) Reformed churches, mainly because the weird side of it, "Am I predestined to be damned?" doesn't come up in Lutheranism.

I will admit that I don't know as much about the two more conservative denominations of Lutheranism in the US, the Missouri Synod and Wisconsin Synod. They can be much more stringent about who is in and who is out and also hold the typical socially conservative positions.

I say this all as an agnostic Marxist raised by ELCA Lutheran pastor parents :-). Because of being raised in a religious but left-liberal household, I don't get the whole "OH NOES RELIGION!" reaction some, often with a lot of justification, feel when they learn someone they care about is religious. Obviously, there are Lutherans who are a lot more conservative than what I was raised in, and you should see if your views (from teaching evolution to acknowledging your atheism to various social issues) will be respected, but don't expect that because she has now indicated she wants her religious upbringing as part of your life, that she will espouse all the things you've heard or experienced some religious people (mainly fundamentalist Christians in the US context) espouse.
posted by Gnatcho at 2:00 PM on August 27, 2008 [2 favorites]

This isn't as complicated as it's being made out to be.

Let me remind everyone of something: Neither atheists or theists can know (at least in this life) if they're correct.

The thinking man's atheist is aware that you can't prove a negative; logic suggests there's no god, but it'll never be proven or disproven. It's a belief, not hard knowledge.

The intellectually honest religious person understands the difference between faith and knowledge. If something is knowable, faith is irrelevent. Faith is believing in the absence of proof.

If both parties to this relationship are intelligent and open-minded (and it sounds as if they are), it should be a small issue to respect each others' beliefs. Attending a church service doesn't make you religious, nor does marrying an atheist make you a heretic.

As for raising children, there are many fantasies in childhood that are comforting, adaptive, and help a child explain that which s/he cannot otherwise fathom (come to think of it, many would probably say that's a pretty good description of religion in general). At any rate, allow your children the comfort of a god, a guardian angel, a loving spiritual presence. It will help them through childhood's traumas and nightmares, and it won't interfere with their ability to be intellectually rigorous as adults.

Best of luck with your beautiful lady and (here it comes) God bless!
posted by dinger at 12:01 PM on August 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

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